Revisiting language anxiety theory, research and practice

Christina Gkonou, Jean-Marc Dewaele, Elaine Horwitz, Jim King, Rebecca Oxford, Peter MacIntyre & Tammy Gregersen

Language anxiety is a complex, negative emotion which has been found to subtly and pervasively in fluence the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of those involved in the process of learning and teaching a foreign/second language. This colloquium will centre on the most recent developments in language anxiety theory, research and practice in an attempt to take stock of current thinking in the field and contemplate possible future directions.

The colloquium will consist of five papers. The first paper by Elaine Horwitz, entitled “Understanding the experiences of anxious language learners: Why Communication Apprehension + Test Anxiety +Fear of Negative Evaluation = Language Anxiety”, focuses on distinguishing between language anxiety and the three aforementioned performance-related anxieties by clarifying Horwitz et al.’s (1986) seminal conceptualisation of language anxiety. The presenter also looks at the links between language anxiety and self-expression, arguing that the former stems from threats to one’s self-concept and the authenticity of communication which is inherent in contemporary foreign language classrooms.

The second paper by Rebecca Oxford is entitled “Anxious language learners can change their minds: Ideas and strategies from traditional psychology and positive psychology” and lists a series of interventions from traditional psychology (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy) and positive psychology (e.g. ABCDE macro-strategy, hope-oriented strategies, positive self-talk). The presenter compares and contrasts these two domains of psychology and offers a rationale for deciding which interventions are appropriate across different settings and circumstances.

The third paper by Christina Gkonou & Jean-Marc Dewaele will examine the importance of “Combining quantitative and qualitative methods for a bifocal view on language anxiety”. The presenters review previous research in the field of language anxiety and highlight the methodological benefits of the gradual shift from purely quantitative and/or qualitative research designs to mixed-method paradigms for the study of emotion and anxiety.

The fourth paper by Jim King is on “Talk, silence and anxiety: An international comparative study of undergraduates’ tolerance of silence during one-to-one tutorials”. The presenter reports on an empirical, mixed-method study using a quasi-experimental approach, which was designed to measure the extent to which silence during an interaction can induce anxiety among interlocutors in Japan and the UK. The findings of the study have strong implications for individuals operating in cross-cultural settings.

The fifth paper by Peter MacIntyre & Tammy Gregersen explores “Language Anxiety: Clarifying the Past and Projecting the Future?” The presenters review three possible directions for future research, namely viewing language anxiety through a dynamic lens by focusing on moment-to-moment fluctuations in anxiety levels, linking anxiety to other emotions which are primarily positive, and considering the key role that nonverbal communication has to play in understanding language anxiety.

Each individual presentation will be followed by a 10-minute interaction with the audience. At the end of all presentations, a 30-minute panel discussion with all presenters will follow. This will aim at bringing together ideas from the talks, synthesising information and discussing suggestions for theory, research and practice. Attendees will also be asked to share their thoughts and experiences with the whole group and the panel.


Understanding the experiences of anxious language learners: Why communication apprehension + test anxiety + fear of negative evaluation = language anxiety

Elaine Horwitz (University of Texas at Austin, USA)

Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope (1986, p. 125) began with four quotations relating the experiences of anxious language learners: “I know I have some sort of disability: I can’t learn a foreign language no matter how hard I try.” “When I’m in my Spanish class, I just freeze. I can’t think of a thing when the teacher calls on me. My mind goes blank.” “I feel like my French teacher is some kind of Martian death ray: I never know when he’ll point at me.” “It’s about time someone studied why some people can’t learn languages.” In that article we argued that a specific anxiety called Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety was primarily responsible for the debilitating effects of anxiety on second language learning and achievement. We also described three representative specific anxieties, Communication Apprehension, Test Anxiety, and Fear of Negative Evaluation, that we saw as conceptually related to foreign language anxiety to help readers understand the concept of a specific anxiety. Contrary to a number of subsequent interpretations, Horwitz et al. did not argue that Communication Apprehension plus Test Anxiety plus Fear of Negative Evaluation formed an equation that resulted in Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. Rather, we argued that foreign language anxiety is different from those three constructs, a contention that was supported by the validation study reported in Horwitz (1986). This paper will review the literature on the distinguishability of Language Anxiety from Communication Apprehension, Test Anxiety, and Fear of Negative Evaluation and return to the original contention of Horwitz et al. that the anxiety associated with language learning stems from the threats to self-concept, self-expression, and authenticity posed by communicating in a second language.


Anxious language learners can change their minds: Ideas and strategies from traditional psychology and positive psychology

Rebecca Oxford (University of Maryland, USA)

Most learners with language anxiety actively distrust social situations in which they must interact or perform in front of others in the target language. They anticipate scrutiny and embarrassment. Highly anxious language learners are the center of their own swirling, pressured, negative world, which seems particularly focused on what they believe they cannot do. They are worried about being worried, yet they frequently feel they cannot escape the compulsion to worry. They are likely to experience insidious outcomes, such as reductions in the following: cognition, self-confidence, personal agency, control, willingness to communicate, and ability to express and recognize emotions. Perhaps for less severely anxious learners, there are cases in which anticipatory anxiety is beneficial for (a) stimulation and alertness, (b) the focus of action, and (c) the process of resilience. Because of their negative assumptions and lack of social skills, individuals with social anxiety, which is usually the basis of language anxiety, often use avoidance behaviors, such as wishful thinking, denial, distractions, escapism, giving up, and failing to speak, along with physical symptoms such as perspiring and shaking. The presenter is a language learning specialist, teacher educator, teacher of traditional psychology, and theorist of positive psychology in language learning. She is aware of the value that traditional and positive psychology offer to our understanding of language anxiety. Although traditional psychology tends to pathologize anxiety, it also offers certain helpful interventions, particularly in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy and associated approaches. Positive psychology, which has arrived relatively recently, offers a host of interventions to alleviate anxiety: the ABCDE macro-strategy, hope-oriented interventions, paradoxical intention, hyper-reflection, situation analysis, and positive self-talk, to name a few. The presenter compares and contrasts traditional psychology and positive psychology and explains how to decide which interventions might be the most valuable in particular circumstances.


Combining quantitative and qualitative methods for a bifocal view on language anxiety

Christina Gkonou (University of Essex, UK) & Jean-Marc Dewaele (Birkbeck College, University of London, UK)

Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope’s (1986) seminal research into language anxiety has generated a range of empirical studies within the thirty-year time span between this first publication and now. Research into this construct primarily relied on well-validated questionnaires, which aimed at examining general patterns among learners and then looking at similarities and differences between them. The recent upsurge of interest in a ’person-in-context’ view of the learner (Ushioda, 2009) and their individual characteristics encouraged a wider use of qualitative research approaches which led to the emergence of grounded-theory models (see, for example, Yan & Horwitz, 2008), and highlighted the importance of mixing methods to better understand the nature of language anxiety and how specific learners might experience it. For instance, mixed-method research designs were implemented along with the influential and ground-breaking idiodynamic software for the study of emotion and anxiety (e.g. Gregersen, MacIntyre, & Meza, 2014) or in recent empirical investigations of the link between anxiety and foreign language enjoyment (e.g. Dewaele & MacIntyre, 2014, 2016). In this talk we will review recent mixed-methods studies and emphasise the importance and methodological benefits of mixing methods in empirically investigating language anxiety. We will conclude by embracing the idea that quantitative and qualitative research should be viewed as complementary and will offer suggestions for potential future directions that research into language anxiety could take.


Talk, silence and anxiety: An international comparative study of undergraduates’ tolerance of silence during one-to-one tutorials

Jim King (University of Leicester, UK)

In previous research (King, 2014, 2016) I have demonstrated how anxiety within the highly social setting of a language class can contribute significantly to the silent behaviour of L2 learners who feel inhibited and under constant scrutiny from peers. After providing a brief overview of this research, the current presentation focuses on anxiety and silence from a converse perspective by considering how the presence of silence during an interaction can itself become an anxiety-inducing phenomenon for participants. I will describe a project which used a mixed methods, quasi-experimental approach to measure the length of silent pause which individual students from samples in Japan and the UK tolerated during a one-to-one staged encounter with their instructor. During this encounter, which took the form of a tutorial meeting, the instructor refrained from speech and all overt non-verbal communication (adopting a neutral facial expression, gaze direction, posture, and so on) from a set point in the meeting. The student participant’s reaction to the period of silence which ensued was examined in detail using a nonverbal/paralinguistic coding and their length of silence tolerance was measured precisely. In addition to quantitative data focusing on the nature of silent pause lengths, the study garnered qualitative data from retrospective interviews examining what participants were actually thinking and feeling whilst the silent encounter was in progress. Testimony which illustrated acute feelings of anxiety on the part of students from both UK and Japanese samples was the primary theme to emerge in this phase of data collection. The project’s findings have potentially significant implications for staff and students who operate in cross-cultural settings, and could help inform the strategies that individuals from both the UK and Japan might adopt to facilitate more successful cross-cultural interactions.


Language anxiety: Clarifying the past and projecting the future

Peter MacIntyre (University of Cape Breton, Canada) & Tammy Gregersen (University of Northern Iowa, USA)

Language anxiety has been widely studied in SLA. Much has been learned since Horwitz et al.’s 1986 paper on foreign language classroom anxiety was published some 30 years ago. Over that time a number of pertinent questions have been asked about language anxiety. It will be argued in this paper that three significant controversies in the research literature have been mostly resolved. These concern whether anxiety is facilitating or debilitating; whether anxiety is a cause versus an effect of performance difficulties; and finally the more subtle issue as to whether language anxiety is best conceptualized as an internal state or a socially constructed one. Whereas some questions have been more-or-less satisfactorily addressed, interesting new questions are emerging. We will review three directions of future research. These surround the notions that research is beginning to describe the dynamics of anxiety as an emotion that shows moment-to-moment fluctuations; that it is connecting language anxiety to other emotions involved in the language learning process, including to positive emotions such as language enjoyment and courage; and that the connection between anxiety and nonverbal communication is providing new insights into the subtle expression of language anxiety and the ways in which it can be perceived. We conclude that, although some older research questions appear to have been adequately settled, there is much yet to learn about language anxiety.